The invisible Muslims

Turkish MuslimsKamuran Samar’s first memory of being a Muslim is praying with his family, aged eight. He watched them and, like any other child, wanted in on something he was missing out on. He didn’t understand the Arabic spoken during prayers, and still doesn’t, but got the meaning from translations. He grew up in Muş, an area of eastern Turkey, and out of 30 kids in his class he was one of two who prayed, though not the full five times a day as that wasn’t practical. This low-seeming number is normal, he says: the Koran stipulates full observance at adolescence: roughly 15 for boys, 12 for girls.

“I was never forced by my family,” he says. “My family would say ‘this is good for you’ but they never forced me to do anything. They said if you don’t then that’s your choice. Religion in an Arabic country is more strict. They have religious law, while Turkey is a secular democracy. You can pray or you can choose what you want. I was educated in a state school and never involved in any religious activities.”

Turkey, once the great Ottoman empire of Islam, has been a secular state since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk founded a new nation after the First World War from a region spanning Europe and Asia that was about to be divided up by the Allies. Officially, Turkey doesn’t ‘do’ religion. Something brought into a sharper, more controversial focus by the ascent to power earlier in this decade of the ruling AK Party (AKP), with its more moderate stance. That and European Union accession-minded moves to lift the ban on headscarves (türban, in Turkish) in government buildings such as colleges. There have been demonstrations against this by secularists – ‘Kemalists’ – but AKP is voted in election after election with comfortable majorities. And Barack Obama’s choice of Turkey for his first official visit to a Muslim nation demonstrated the importance the West attaches to this country and its progress toward a long-standing goal of EU membership.

Kamuran lives in Stoke Newington, an area of the London Borough of Hackney famed for its large Turkish, Kurdish, and Turkish Cypriot population. A short walk down Stoke Newington Road shows observant and non-observant Muslim women of all ages in largely equal quantities. Just the same as in Turkey. There are Turkish shops and restaurants offering Turkish wine and beer, belly-dance classes advertised as a new kind of aerobics. And there are spectacular mosques (cami in Turkish), from the gorgeous blue tiles – imported from Turkey – of the converted cinema of the Aziziye mosque, to the towering Süleymaniye edifice a bit further on down the road toward the City. Make no mistake, though: Turkey is not Islam-lite, either here or abroad. “Today is a mix of culture and religion,” Kamuran says. “Turkish girls in the UK feel more relaxed, for example when they’re going out at night they have to take account of what people might think in Turkey, if they uncover their hair.”

Muslim women. Two more emotive, charged words. A whole other matter. One the newspapers can’t leave alone, though. Page four of the Mail on Sunday Review of October 11, 2009, publishes extracts from a new book called Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, by Christopher Caldwell. The accompanying photo shows two women clutching high street shopping bags, in flowing black robes, a tiny slash of forehead and eyes visible. The headline: Immigration made America strong – but it threatens to ruin Europe. Has anyone asked Muslim women living in Britain (and I don’t mean glossy-haired politicians) what they think of how they’re being presented by the media? Apparently not: they’re fair game for Fleet Street, it appears, unless you count Newsnight talking heads with their own agenda.

Kamuran works as a journalist for an international news agency, and every day he scans the European media for stories about Turkey, to report back. So he knows more about the following than you and me. “I’m sure the Western media is biased against Turkey. They know the history of Turkish society and yet they still prejudice people against Turkey. The Western media doesn’t see Turkey as a secular society, they show it as a very poor, very religious, very underdeveloped country, with uneducated people. There is a degree of truth in this of course, but only to an extent, and not as much as the Western media shows. The Austrian, German, French, Dutch, and Belgian media, these are more hostile to Turkey I believe than the British media, which is more independent. The British press is more responsible than other countries’ press – in my job I compare them.

“I can find a story about Turkey in the British press every day, and, mostly, they don’t see Turkey as an Arabic country. But the Western media in general doesn’t like Islam. They want to keep Turkey out of Europe by writing these inaccurate stories. If Turkey was a Christian country they would be more responsible in their reporting.

“But there are of course exceptions. When you read the reports of conservative papers they are highly critical of Turkey. Because they know Turkey is a Muslim country, they do see Turkey as an Arabic country; they put it in the same boat and don’t distinguish. The Western media though will realise the importance of Turkey as its influence grows in the Middle East and in Europe.”

Kamuran prays five times a day, fasts during Ramadan, attends mosque on Fridays. But young professionals like him are absent from the media unless they are arrested, charged, and put on trial. For consumers and newsrooms alike, that’s our fault: bad news sells, good news doesn’t. So what you won’t be aware of is that there are organisations in Britain which are dedicated to fostering greater understanding of Islam. That the Muslims on your street and in the wider world are nothing to do with the mugshots of bomb plotters in the press.

The Dialogue Society is one such organisation. Founded in 1999 as a registered charity, it works in research and civic engagement to develop and deliver new ideas and advance intercultural dialogue and community cohesion. The Dialogue Society delivers projects including weekly seminars, panel discussions and roundtables; policy recommendations and publications; policy-maker briefings; conferences; intercultural community events; cultural exchange trips and developing partnership with other organisations.

And like other religions, there are denominations beyond the term ‘Muslim’. The closest we come to hearing of this is ‘sectarian violence’ in Iraq and other countries. Depending on who you talk to, there are four denominations of Islam: Hanefi (whose adherents are known as Sunnis); Malaki; Hanbeli; and Şafi, with many Kurdish adherents in Turkey. There are also Alevis, which to an extent are also known as Shia in Iran.

So, perhaps there’s more to Muslims than burqas, bombers, and headlines.

First published in November, 2009, in Lucid Magazine. Available in This Is The World That We Live In, a collection of Lucid Magazine (2010): 


About James Willsher

Newspaper and magazine reporter since 2004, has freelanced in Russia and Central Asia, and does local government PR. Likes green tea and interviewing people / places. Phil Garrett was a pen name. @JGWillsher
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